Sunday, June 26, 2016

Devlog Update: The Morphine Western Revenge (#2)

In a Nutshell

Development of The Morphine Western Revenge has been going pretty smoothly! When I last wrote nearly two months ago, I had little more than a test level. Now, the first two-thirds of the game are fully playable, written, and scored.

In addition to churning out levels, music, art assets, and dialogue, I've also been working to make the game's play a bit more dynamic and fine-tune its pacing. This has mostly meant expanding upon the (still basic) enemy AI and adding new baddy types (more on that later), but I'm also trying to speed up the game's combat and having it play less like chunky-ol' Halo and more like Hotline Miami.

(If you're confused, the first formal devlog for The Morphine Western Revenge can be found here and offers a pretty good primer on What's Generally Going On.) 

Regarding Artscape/Gamescape

My proposed booth showcasing Revenge, Digital Toilet World, and Bloodjak got waitlisted. Considering the roughness of Toilet World and the incompleteness of Revenge, this is not surprising.

For Revenge's development, this has been both a blessing and a curse. Originally, I was on schedule to have the game fully complete by early July in time for the festival. Now that the deadline has become irrelevant, I've been freed up to develop the game at a much slower pace, allowing me to make a better game and better take care of myself. Unfortunately, this means an August release date for the game, further postponing Monsterpunk's development.

Regarding the Game's Music 

I've got some! Have a listen:

I'm now comfortable enough with basic composition that, compared to Toilet World and Monsterpunk's soundtracks, Revenge's soundtrack is more expressive. I'm also attempting to make the game's soundtrack cohesive by sharing common motifs and patterns across multiple tracks. In this way, I hope to make each level feel like part of a greater, unified world.

Regarding the Limitations of the Source Material

An advantage to making games in cyberspace, sci-fi, and fantasy settings, as I've done in the past, is that it gives you a lot of freedom with the game's mechanics. You can easily create a small but diverse collection of abilities, enemies, and obstacles that can be mixed-and-matched to great effect. Doors, elevators, platforms, terminals, teleporters, armored bad guys, flying bad guys, giant bad guys, explosions, invisibility, double-jumping, sniping, backstabbing, etc.

The Hyperbolic Needle, the novella that Revenge is based upon, is set in the wilderness of 19th century Imperial Valley, California. Imperial Valley mostly consists of static elements - rocks, sand, and plants. Furthermore, all of the characters in the novella are human, with fairly normal human abilities.

The game's source material imposed two challenges I failed to consider when starting the project: 1) designing interesting levels that work well as play spaces while staying true to the setting and 2) creating interesting gunplay with an extremely homogeneous group of human adversaries.

Level design for Revenge, by necessity, has become fairly nonsensical and abstract. Boxes, stacks of rocks, and wooden walls litter an otherwise natural landscape in patterns that make no practical sense. However, these patterns allow for, say, a certain someone to find cover at any moment and flank her enemies from any direction.

My solution to the problem of enemy variety has been less satisfactory. While the game's human enemies carry a variety of different weapons, they are all similarly squishy, speedy, and stupid. In order to provide some contrast, I've added tall, broad men who are uniquely bearded and hatless. These bearded hatless men are inexplicably slower and harder to kill than their comrades, but are still fairly stupid.

It's the best I could do.

Regarding Current Events and the Game's Content

Okay, here's where we get off the hype train.

Making a shooter video game in the aftermath of one of our country's worst mass shootings doesn't feel terrible, but it doesn't feel great either. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.

If you've been reading this blog for the past few years or even have played some of my work before (especially The Void Hero Blues), then you know that my feelings toward violence in games, especially gun violence, are ambivalent. While I can probably best be described as an action game designer first and foremost, I usually try to avoid historical or contemporary settings, guns, and human enemies in my games - and if my games do feature those things, I try to subvert the violence in some way.

Revenge, of course, features gun violence between humans in a historical setting and is loosely inspired by historical events of the time. It also does relatively little to subvert the player's enjoyment of that violence compared to previous work. If it isn't the most brutal game I've made, it comes close to it.

No matter how much of an anti-hero I make the protagonist, no matter how poorly her revenge goes for her, no matter how clearly I state that everything that happens in the game is Terrible and Bad - the fact remains that I am still glorifying the violence in the game. As a designer, I want the player to be entertained by their primary mode of interaction, and if I'm doing my job right, then I will succeed in that. When you click the mouse and you hear the bassy thud of your shotgun and all of the pellets strike your target and he flies backwards with force as blood sprays in the other direction - it feels good, and it's designed to feel good.

Now, it's been pretty well proven, of course, that playing violent video games does not directly, universally, or significantly cause violent behavior. However, this isn't to say that violent games, and violent media in general, have zero influence on out collective beliefs on appropriate and normal uses of force. While most of us consuming violent media (nearly everyone) are fairly peaceful people, I do wonder about the George Zimmermans of the world who try to play vigilante, as well as the folks out there who are stockpiling AR-15's in preparation for the post-apocalypse. These individuals do not engage in lethal violence throughout their day-to-days lives, but in the situations where they think its appropriate? They're performing the role of the Hollywood action hero.

My contribution to our culture of violence is pretty small. Neither me nor my work is especially popular, and the work itself is probably harmless. I am proud of what I'm making and hope you all enjoy it when it's done.

However, this is a good time to recognize that art doesn't exist in a vacuum. Our interpretations of art both drive and are driven by context. I am disheartened by the news in Orlando and simply hope that, whether through policy change or a rejection of gun culture, we are able to prevent future tragedies. Figuring out what role I play, and what role I should play, in a world where this is possible is difficult.